Meandering Yet Wanderings

The Draw is all about drawings, right? Images on paper, and then their digitized forms? Imagine then my surprise when I had some songs to put out! “Studio” performances digitized and then remastered and such! Well, actually, the recordings were from between 20 and 11 years earlier; notions of getting them “out there” had been bubbling up for some time as well; and, along the way, it just came to be that I would base them on this site as opposed to some stand-alone place. So, perhaps a surprise simply in that it all came to be and that I did all the necessary work and decisions to bring everything to fruition–not in that it existed in the first place.

Wanderings, album cover at The Draw

Wanderings – Cover
© 2021 Darren Olsen

What songs though? A full album, actually … of acoustic, solo hammered dulcimer music! Some covers of traditional songs … but mostly originals to boot! Not exactly the next big hits and chart-toppers though. Not to everyone’s tastes … and, who can say how good it actually all is? Yet it’s always been pleasant enough to me at least … and though I’ve long ceased with active playing even, these recordings were something I felt, perhaps, really ought to be out there for anyone and everyone who might enjoy listening.

All It Involved

Talk about a project though! My “projects” have always been cases in which I went far beyond just drawing something … like working through the design of the Star Back Playing Cards; coming up with the Ms. Deal soda stuff and the supplemental backstory and everything; and, most especially, conceptualizing and figuring out the Gather ‘Round Kwanzaa Creations Kit. While the Kwanzaa Creations Kit remains the most challenging and expansive project I’ve yet done … Wanderings: Meandering on Dulcimer in Years Past is certainly up there, and not least of all just given the sheer distinction of it involving music and audio and all … radically apart from my usual work on The Draw and all.

In fact, it took and involved so much work that I ended up breaking for nearly a year before writing up this recounting of it all. (Typically, the time between completion of a project and its recounting is much, much shorter and immediate.) By now, I may not even recall the precise details of everything I did … nor the exact timeline. From late 2020 though to early 2021–in no particular order–there was, first, the decision of all to do; not least of all to remaster from the source recordings as opposed to recording anew or just releasing the previously-mastered tracks. Of course, ordering of the tracks was big as well; whether to release everything or leave a few things off / back; and, how to combine everything from three separate prior albums / EPs into what. (Titling the new album–and drawing the cover art and whatnot.)

Still the project grew and grew. From just putting the tracks on this site–maybe getting them on the YouTube channel–to going with CD Baby and joining ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers); distributing thereby to a multitude of platforms; experimenting with “mono to stereo” tricks and other possible audio enhancements; and, coming up with branded merchandise (requiring additional artwork) to complement the album in my store … plus setting up a page on this site at which to base everything … and, simply coordinating everything leading up to the release date. It was indeed quite a lot–and as of this writing, I’ve still yet to do the non-branded items featuring the basic cover art, as I’ve planned to do–yet the album and branded merchandise have long since been released. Wanderings: Meandering on Dulcimer in Years Past is a reality for The Draw–and perhaps a surprising but pleasant one at that.

Dream Taking Shape

While “dream” is a bit incorrect or at least too strong a word here, what, if anything, to do with my dulcimer recordings had long been low-key present. Along the way in my heyday of learning and playing hammered dulcimer, I had at times composed new songs–not necessarily a hard thing to do, even though it took work, just playing around and then refining stuff–and then at less frequent intervals, recorded them.

Truthfully though, I had waning interest in playing not even long after I’d begun. In fact, all three recordings I’d done (not counting very informal ones on a portable cassette player) were motivated by other people–or rather having something special to give them for one reason or another. Even my teacher eventually declared there was little else she could teach me … and really, other than the three recordings and, perhaps, a brief renaissance of active playing and composing following the second recording … I just wasn’t playing that much. So, before long, the recordings took on a somewhat nostalgic air–generally though not exclusively tied to happy memories of special times or special people–and … what might I eventually do with them? Presumably nothing. They simply existed.

If I ever felt I ought widely to share them though … one issue loomed immediately large. To release the pre-existing album, EP, and album (way back, respectively, from 2003 / 2014, 2008, and 2010) just didn’t feel right–and nor to directly use the original recordings. Yet too, the idea that I would record many of the songs completely anew just didn’t seem right either. Like I said, I long was not actively playing … aren’t and haven’t been playing even now. The idea that I would play enough to be able to do a respectable job re-recording many of the songs just wasn’t realistic. No matter how much I idly thought of releasing everything then, there just seemed to be no way forward. (Years earlier–in 2014–I had transferred the one album from cassette to digital files like the rest had always been. After all, one physical cassette was more vulnerable to loss–and this, I felt at the time, was the end of it all.)

Then too, I suppose I was always undecided on whether to more widely share them. For it was all somewhat personally-treasured, and sometimes–maybe even quite often–you don’t share or distribute things that you hold even moderately dear … even if the alternative is obscurity and eventual, total loss. Of course if you do share, you make sure it gets done right. But do you at all? Just how widely? Do you include the possibility of profit? Particularly if the stuff was originally shared with very select, mostly-special people? Do you? Would I? Should I? I just never knew … wasn’t sure. Mostly, I was content to just let it ride … yet with thoughts of sharing more widely bubbling up at times along the way.

Well, I really can’t say which came first: deciding that I wanted to release it all, or solving the “using the original recordings vs. recording everything anew” dilemma. I suppose it may not strictly have been one or the other–that either may have spurred on the other once it began to become resolved. Suffice it to say though, I eventually concluded I did want to release everything–that maybe even a treasured thing, once you’ve truly become at peace with it, you can let go even for others to enjoy–and that, were I in contact with any of those people to ask, they would support bringing some enjoyment to others as well.

Meanwhile, I stumbled upon the solution to the initial dilemma as well: remaster from the original source recordings! That is, don’t use the pre-existing mastered tracks … but don’t record things anew either. (For, I’ve been using “recordings” to mean different things: the albums / EP themselves; the tracks as originally recorded with no alteration / editing / mastering whatsoever; and, the mastered tracks that made up the albums / EP. Using the latter would’ve been using the original recordings; but the middle, yes, not exactly recording anew, yet still starting from scratch with the raw source recordings.) This way, I could get still get quality and respectable work done in lieu of the highly-improbable … while even, incidentally, anticipating the future problem of blending recordings from three different masters into one.

Essentials Conceived

Before any of that could be done though–or at the very least, concurrently–came the essentials of conceiving the “new” album. What would it be called? Why? What would the cover art be? Why? Need there be any of these whys? And, while remastering all the tracks would mostly be the same things track-by-track … noise removal and starts / fades and such … how would everything be integrated into one? From three different groups of recordings, even the raw sources were not completely identical (one was originally on cassette even!). Besides, there were the issues of choosing which songs to include, if not all; ordering the selected ones; and, where multiple recordings of the same song existed, settling on which version to include.

Titling

I don’t quite remember now all the titles I considered. “Legacy of Joy” sticks out to me as part of a title that was favored at one point–like maybe a subtitle or whatnot. The idea was that I’d actively played in the past but no longer–and these songs had been meant for the enjoyment by and in honor of others–and the title should reflect that. Then too, there was the fact that I’d often just sporadically worked on composing songs rather than truly planning it–not to mention that even early on, I often played more leading up to a lesson, or just went back-and-forth with how interested I actually was in playing.

Taking this all together then, well, I started contemplating the distinction between “wander” and “meander”. Apparently, “meander” carries more of an aimless connotation to it, whereas “wander” implies just a bit more focus. It seemed accurate to me then that I had meandered in playing the dulcimer many of those years–yet over time, I wandered in coming up with the three recordings. So … Wanderings: Meandering on Dulcimer in Years Past came to be. (Note that the whole “treasured past” bit became reduced to a subtle nod with “in years past”. I suppose though that sort of thing oughtn’t to be too heavy-handed anyway.)

Order and Songs

When it came to which songs and versions to include, some obvious ground rules soon became apparent. I decided early on that while not everything was going to end up on Wanderings, I would nonetheless remaster every single track. (Despite the extra work, just to be consistent and thorough … and just in case I ever needed it in future.) Beyond that though, the second recording and only EP I’d done in 2008 had been the most genuine and heartfelt of all, so all five songs featured on it and indeed from that specific source were to be included. Insofar as the second album in 2010 had three new songs on it, even if only because they were the sole versions of those songs to exist, they were to be included. The first album in 2003 was more hit-and-miss, so I decided to choose or omit per my judgement. Lastly, the limited selection of traditional songs necessarily came from the second album–while from the first I had a couple “keyboard renditions” (to be demos on Wanderings, as their recordings and even the playing was just rougher).

Nice and all so far. What about the ordering? Well, the first album had been a concept album–of being out ‘n’ about for a day that featured everything from taking a hot air balloon trip to knowing of a space probe’s voyage into the endless expanses of space–and, considering that Wanderings would necessarily include more material from that album than from any other (if not in specific source, then at least the actual songs where they first appeared), it just felt right to aim for some sense of beginning, middle, and end. (So, again … just my own judgement on what seemed right. Note then though the even deeper subtext of “wandering” and “meandering”.)

Cover and Remastering

How about the cover art? Now that seemed like a big challenge at first. How could I do justice to it all? With simplicity and abstraction, it turned out. Was a dulcimer against a multi-colored backdrop too simple? Cliché even? I can’t say. Though I think it was appropriate. I like colorful stuff anyway, so that colorful, generalized blend of hues seemed representative of my fonder memories and feelings of the past. Meanwhile–yes–the dulcimer is, in fact, a very good rendition of my very own, actual one. (Though of course on paper, the colors below it ended up blending with it. Not quite what I’d planned; though I quickly came to appreciate it. Although the choice to not draw the dulcimer separately and then digitally place it against the backdrop proved to be a problem later on when the idea of the branded merchandise all came up. Ultimately though I wouldn’t have changed doing it that way, for while I could’ve used GIMP to make the dulcimer partially transparent against the separate backdrop, it would never have blended colors in the way it turned out. Trade-offs, right? To get what you want–even as you figure out what you want.)

Wanderings, album cover at The Draw

Wanderings – Cover
© 2021 Darren Olsen

As for the titling and such on the cover though, things became just a tad tricky. I think I’d always planned on putting my name straight and centered below the dulcimer, with the title above and the subtitle split off to the sides. Yet with how to style the title above, I went through various ideas–from curved to outlined, or shadowed or whatnot. What I could do with GIMP (my image editor) played some part in it too. Was my initially-settled choice to have all of “Wanderings” evenly outlined? Whatever it was, it ultimately changed. GIMP allowed me to angle the subtitles and make all the text partially transparent–meanwhile, red had long been a color associated with the music, which black seemed to complement–yet I recall that I couldn’t see how to make GIMP do precisely what I had been envisioning with the title. Although again, I wouldn’t have changed how it ultimately turned out … sort of unevenly shadowed. (If I recall, I copied the title but made it larger; chose a cyan for the shadow color so as to contrast maximally; and then, used a selection based on the smaller title to erase the parts of the larger, shadow one that would otherwise be directly beneath–as otherwise then with the transparency, the red and cyan would blend as I did not want them to. Some nifty yet tricky maneuvering at the time … settling on a font, incidentally, was among the easiest part to figure out in comparison.)

Lastly, the remastering itself–arguably the most central work of all of it–was fairly straightforward, even if tedious. (Though some more technical issues did arise later on … even with the cover art ….) Using Audacity, I just took each track and: applied noise removal, experimenting until I found the best settings and–where applicable–the best portions of the source to sample noise from; trimmed away silence in front of each track; and allowed the songs to fade natural-like while nonetheless applying fade-out to the very ends. (In particular, noise removal in Audacity works by selecting a portion of a track to tell Audacity what’s noise versus everything else, and then with a few tweaks of a couple settings, Audacity sweeps through the whole track, ideally leaving the desired audio while stripping out all the junk. Done right–where possible, I might add, for it isn’t always possible–it does exactly that. If not though, good audio gets stripped; noise remains; or weird little “artifacts” get created. I have to say, as compared to the original masters, I outdid myself this time around. Truly did credit to the decision to remaster from the sources, rather than just use the pre-existing tracks.)

Increasing Scope

Essential as all that was though (indeed, the very essence of it all), another side of it was just how to distribute the finished album. My early and persistent idea was just to put the songs on The Draw’s YouTube channel, and then put a page or whatnot on this site linking to them. Simple and sweet, I guess you could say … personable, even. (In fact, even the YouTube idea may have been secondary at first. I think I just planned on putting the actual WAV files on the page … and then setting them up as YouTube videos separately. The realization that solely linking to YouTube videos might be even better didn’t come until later.)

There too though, again, I had long been contemplating whether to ever even try releasing any of it. So, naturally, I was still thinking smaller scale early on. Eventually, what now seems like no big deal at all slowly occurred to me: that I might be able to formally release Wanderings as a digital album through a platform like CD Baby or TuneCore; that I might even join a performing rights organization such as ASCAP or BMI; and that, as I soon learned as well, that could even mean distribution to a whole litany of platforms from iTunes to Amazon and to way, way beyond … with potential solicitation for or collection of royalties for use of Wanderings and its tracks to boot. (For, I had also contemplated getting on iTunes earlier on … though it didn’t look easy per se. Finding out that places like CD Baby distribute to such platforms automatically was quite a boon.)

Of course, the heart of the issue was still whether I wanted to potentially profit from cherished, nostalgic material … material that had even been meaningful to special people from the past. Well, one very practical point is that it’s doubtful I’ll ever profit much from it all. Realistically, even with a concerted, deliberate effort to advertise and actively play gigs or whatnot, this just isn’t the type of music that sells big (in more ways than one). (Yet, for people who like and appreciate it, all the better. There’s nothing wrong with popularity and widespread acclaim; but then, too, the niche things that only a select few truly appreciate and get can be even nicer and all the more special.)

Like I said before though as well, I came to feel that any of those special people from the past would not–should not–care about the music being more widely shared. (And, granted, though arguably a technicality, the songs themselves were never meant for specific people. The albums / EP were–not the songs. Note that I haven’t divulged too much about those works either–other than cursory and necessary mentions.) Not even me–if I could consider myself yet another special person the music was honoring–insofar as I’d occasionally found it nice to listen to again, and had fond and treasured memories attached to it all. Sometimes, yes, you can keep something back and all to yourself–rightfully so because it is all your own and nobody else needs or even necessarily wants it. And yet, perhaps–if you find some peace even with happy memories and events of the past–then, you can let it go … free, and “out there”. (And, again, I haven’t and aren’t planning on making too much further effort to advertise or promote it. If it sells at all–streams, downloads, royalties for use by others–so be it. It’s hardly been anything so far though–and I never expect or seek substantially different.)

Lingering Settlement

So the plan–the vision–was all in place. The very idea clear; ideological stances settled; the album titled, tracks ordered, and cover art drawn; publication and PRO-joining on the near-horizon; with the track remastering (even!) largely done. (Even future ideas clear–like putting out some branded merchandise; drawing additional artwork for it; and, as sort of an offshoot of it all, doing some non-branded merchandise with the basic cover art.)

Yet, some lingering and pernicious matters still remained, and arguably even threatened the finish. Cleaning and polishing the tracks with noise removal, trims, and fades was the bulk of the remastering and, for a track in isolation, quite sufficient. (Though at least one track had a short “bad” spot in it that needed some kind of special attention.) Yet, there was the matter of putting all the tracks together … and that, for instance, meant balancing out and matching the volume of each track with the others … not necessarily so easy to accurately do … at least with any confidence that the task had been done as ideally as possible. (And, further, oughtn’t I to have “enhanced” the tracks in any other way? Any studio trickery or whatnot?) And, so far as the branded merchandise would go, while it could easily wait until post-release–and doing some additional artwork would simply take a little more time and thought–having drawn the dulcimer directly on the background in the cover art meant that if I wanted to use them separately, well, separating them would be a near-impossibility. Just what was there to do then about that?

It was here then that, with the impending release a few months away (though I don’t recall exactly when or how far in advance I had set the release date), it began to feel like maybe I wouldn’t be able to pull it all off after all … at least to my personal satisfaction. If previously, it’d been the scope that kept increasing, now … it was the work itself that was. Between completing the finer points of the remastering on one hand (plus solving the additional artwork conundrum), yet contemplating any number of audio enhancements on the other … there was just a lot to work through and figure out.

Volume

Fortunately though as with any of my “projects”, that’s just how it goes. It just takes a lot of effort … and then it works out fine. And so as usual, I kept up and did just that. Regarding the volume matching, for instance, the issue was that with tracks from different recordings, the relative volumes of different tracks were way off. As such, to not alter the volume levels at all would’ve meant some tracks being quieter, then others perhaps right after being way too loud. (And, you know, any of us who listen to music from playlists even and such are probably used to this phenomenon. And if you’re ready to just tweak the volume real quick, it’s not so big a deal. It could be much more so though for anyone not right by the volume control … and anyway on a cohesive album, it just wouldn’t be very professional.)

But how is this issue addressed? Generally, by finding, say, the loudest track and then amplifying each other in turn to match its volume level–or else the quietest track, then de-amplifying each other in turn. Though this is, at best, extremely tedious … with headphones on, repeatedly–ad nauseam–listening to short sections; amplifying or de-amplifyng the whole track; listening / checking again; maybe undoing and re-doing; until–perhaps–it’s right. And, for tracks that organically have louder or quieter parts … it can’t be based on any one short section. It takes an overall perception of much longer pieces … maybe even the entire track.

Well, so I tried all this but with only some reasonable confidence that I was getting it all right … until I discovered that a newer version of Audacity was out that just happened to have an effect for normalizing by “perceived loudness”. (Audacity 3, that is; I’d been using some version of Audacity 2 up to that point.) For, many online sources suggested that just normalizing all the tracks together would get them volume-matched. The issue with that though is, while normalizing does equalize the visual waveforms (and, for stereo tracks, even the left and right tracks), it’s an automated thing with no personal touch, which in fact does not guarantee that all the tracks will sound equally loud to a listener. While waveform height does have a correlation with loudness / volume, it simply isn’t perfect. Fortunately for me though as in the nick of time, using Audacity 3’s perceived loudness normalization effect, I was able to match up all the volumes to my personal satisfaction. (As to how I did it, precisely … if I’m recalling correctly after all this time, the perceived loudness normalization effect also amplifies to a specified level. Settling upon the level at which to amplify was quite a headache to deal with, as there was talk of never maximizing it for fear of playback being distorted–needing to leave “headroom”, that is–but then what precise level to use? Nonetheless … Audacity 3’s perceived loudness normalization effect proved immensely helpful.)

To finish with the volume-related stuff though, one track had a very brief part where the volume just sort of dropped out (one of the cassette tracks … perhaps it was related to a bad section on the tape?); while various others had outlying, high peaks in the waveform that were limiting the extent to which everything could be amplified. (Peaks necessarily limit how much amplification can be done, because they’ll quickly reach maximum height, and if going beyond that, they’ll get clipped … resulting in a noticeable “pop” in the audio.) And the brief drop-out, of course, is self-explanatory … and its fix was tricky yet straightforward. (I used something called the envelope tool in Audacity, which allows for selective amplification of isolated parts of a track. Getting it just right so as to not leave too noticeable an effect was demanding … yet, overall, not too difficult a fix.)

But regarding the outlying high peaks … this actually led into an intense contemplation of something called “compression” in the process of audio engineering. (A topic at that time previously unknown to me.) See–to go off an a brief tangent here–many people presumably see compression as a standard part of mastering. In fact, even more so, there was a time–roughly the latter half of the 20th century or so–when the so-called “loudness wars” were going on. Basically–in the context of loudness–compression takes down peaks in the waveform so that a track can then be amplified to a much greater extent. Supposedly, listeners prefer such louder material. So, over the years and decades, audio professionals kept making music louder and louder in this way. Yet while some musical genres actually depend on compression to make them sound as they should, most times, compression comes at the cost of dynamic range–or softer versus louder parts of a track. If extreme enough, the result can be music that just doesn’t sound quite right … “flat”, perhaps, or somehow unnatural.

Ultimately then, I decided against using even moderate compression on the majority of the tracks–opting instead for just light enough compression so as to knock the outlying peaks down a bit to some “average” level with all the rest. For, I didn’t want Wanderings to be so quiet that listeners would have to crank the volume way up just to get a decent level. Yet I had even far less interest in harming the sound quality with moderate-to-heavy compression. (After all, the dulcimer is a soft, sweet instrument–“dulcimer” even comes from Latin that means “sweet tune” or so–with some subtle differences in volume even where not deliberate.) So to ensure a decent volume level yet without harming the sound quality, I settled on just using some light compression–which I applied equally to all the tracks. (In fact, I think I didn’t even use Audacity’s compressor … but rather its limiter. Whereas a compressor offers lots of room for intricacy in its effect, a limiter focuses solely on bringing down peaks. Overall then–again, if I’m remembering correctly–the remastering process went as follows: apply noise removal based on an appropriate sample of the track; tidy up by trimming from the front and back and fading out the back; apply the limiter at the chosen level; and, lastly, apply the perceived loudness normalization with the chosen amplification level to all the tracks.)

The song "Balloon Ride" as its source appears in the audio app Audacity, to help illustrate mastering techniques.

“Balloon Ride” source in Audacity / prior to mastering, a strictly mono track. Note the space in front and back (not tidied); a handful of outlying peaks (like that one near bottom-right–not limited); and that the waveforms are far from the top and bottom of the track (not normalized / amplified).
© 2022 Darren Olsen

Enhancements

If compression though was a standard part of mastering that I’d largely declined to use, what about various other non-standard things? Principally, all my source recordings were mono … yet stereo has long been standard and presumably even preferred. Ought I to try and turn my mono recordings into stereo? Well, “turning mono into stereo” simply isn’t possible; and yet, certain techniques may be applied to mimic it … if it’s really that important and great an idea.

The song "Balloon Ride" as it appears in the audio app Audacity, to help illustrate mastering techniques.

“Balloon Ride” as it appears in Audacity, a “stereo” mono track. Now, the left and right ends are clean and crisp; all the peaks are about an average; and the waveforms reach uniformly close to the top and bottom of the track.
© 2022 Darren Olsen

To go off on another brief tangent here, mono recordings are those done with only one microphone, whereas stereo recordings are done with two (or possibly even more). The result is either just one track for a given song, or else two that may be joined together as one left and one right. When a given piece is played back then, in mono, the precise same thing comes out of both speakers–the same track–whereas in stereo, slightly different things come out of each speaker–the two distinct tracks. (And, not to be confusing, but a single track can even by duplicated and then joined with the original to form a single left-and-right stereo track. Such is what I did with Wanderings–as tracks that are technically stereo in this way are standard. Yet even if technically stereo for having a left and right track, being the same, it’s truly still just mono.)

Well … why does anyone particularly care about this mono / stereo distinction? Because stereo better captures a live or even studio performance … preserving it in a way that’s most conducive to human hearing and perception. Imagine someone sitting in front of a stage with several instruments and players. As the band plays, certain sounds will reach their left ear before their right, and vice versa for the other sounds. Further, given that some of the instruments are naturally further away from this audience member than others, some will reach them earlier than others. This is how listening / hearing naturally works … just as seeing with two eyes allows for depth perception, hearing with two ears allows for a sort of sonic depth perception. That is, even with eyes closed, the audience member would nonetheless discern where the different instruments were placed and such.

So … stereo sounds great, right? Certainly. Most especially when multiple instruments are involved. (Though surprisingly, how a listener listens to a stereo recording determines what they get out of it. Ideally, they should be back from the speakers, and with the left and right speaker off to, well, the left and the right. When closer to the speakers or if the speakers themselves are close together, the stereo effect will be diminished.) This is why even upon the advent of stereo, certain famous bands and labels took to turning their pre-existing mono recordings into stereo … in a fashion, at any rate, as again, stereo simply cannot be made out of mono. (If only one microphone was used while recording, it’s mono … period.) Yet by, say, duplicating the mono track to get a left and right, but then shifting one of those just ever-so-slightly forward or back … or adding a light reverb effect … or other such tricks I’m not thinking of right now … you can, at least, vary the left and right tracks … to mimic stereo a bit. (In fact, when you have multiple tracks from several instruments, you may even pan them variously to the left or to the right to vary the emphasis from the left and right speakers–as a single mono track can be made to play more heavily from the left or right speaker. This isn’t a mono-to-stereo trick though–just a way to manage playback of multiple tracks so that it sounds clear.)

Does this really work though? And is mono that bad after all? Perhaps “no” to both those questions. The thing about these mono-to-stereo tricks is, they simply don’t reproduce the natural variations in sound that real life–and stereo recordings–feature. It’s entirely artificial, lacking the nuance of real sounds and their placements and directions. So, might it sound better than unaltered mono? Maybe … but then again, maybe just different … not “better”.

As well, can mono sound good? Well, I’d say at least that if only one instrument is involved–as with my case–the difference between a mono and stereo recording will be lessened. And, I actually came across some discussions online where people were saying they actually prefer mono … that it’s just more powerful and direct. (Someone even suggested that if you’ve never listened to the Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its mono mix, you should. Not that it’s necessarily better … but simply that it’s good in its own right.)

So … my recordings were in mono … I couldn’t truly change that. With any of the various mono-to-stereo tricks, I considered enhancing the recordings. Yet, just as with my drawings–which I aim to digitally render as close as possible to how they physically look–here too, I wanted the songs on Wanderings to sound just as they did when actually played. Granted, ideally that would’ve meant recording them in stereo–with two microphones–but, barring that, it was best to just leave them be. I’d done a great job with the noise removal and such–really making them sound crips and clear–plus the rest of the remastering. So, ultimately, I just decided not to tamper with trying to “enhance” them beyond all that. Wanderings is a mono recording … perhaps proudly so.

(And, as one last aside here … it’s actually fascinating how stereo mixing works. With Wanderings, I had no mixing to do–mastering, but no mixing–because with only one instrument, I had only one track per song. (When multiple instruments are involved, each may be recorded to its own track, and then later, the individual tracks are necessarily combined into one.) Well, even mixing in mono is interesting and has its challenges … even something like panning some of the tracks to the left or right such that everything comes out clear in the mix. With stereo though, it’s even more involved. There’s the whole “stereoscape” to fill out and arrange. Done well, it’s all good. Not so well … the album may sound airy, or “empty”, or whatnot. Now–if you ever thought only the writers and the performers determine how good an album is–you may realize that the audio engineers too play a big role … taking those raw studio or live performances and mixing and mastering them to perfection for the finished project and for all posterity.)

Artwork

Dulcimer, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Dulcimer”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

Right Hammer, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Right Hammer”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

The “final” hurdle before release was to settle the additional artwork, meant for the branded merchandise to go in The Draw. (Well, actually, the release itself could’ve went on without the additional artwork at all … but, as it happened, I’d been contemplating the issue all along and began working on it prior to the release.) The notion of the branded merchandise was simple: just pick a few items like a sketchbook, shirt, and mug (or so) to put the Wanderings branding upon.

Tuning Wrench, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Tuning Wrench”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

But what was the additional artwork to be? Juxtaposing the imaginary journey of the music with some realism, I quickly settled on things I’d used in playing, recording, or even wearing over the years. So … my hammers; tuning wrench; electronic tuner; current computer; old microphone; and shoes, it was. (Over the years, at least two computers had been involved … I chose the latest. So, too, only the first album had been recorded with something other than a computer’s built-in microphone.) Simple enough … yet elegant and, again, meaningful. (I mostly even stayed true to the actual colors … though with the computer and tuner, I took a couple liberties … for appearance’s sake.)

Tuner, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Tuner”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

Yet, there were two other drawings I wanted to use … both already done … and yet, inaccessible–barring some ingenious idea. Namely, my dulcimer from Wandering‘s cover, plus the background itself. The problem was that I hadn’t drawn them apart, and so having been blended together as one, I couldn’t pull the dulcimer out without it being colored of the background still, and nor without leaving a big hole in the background. For, had I split them in that way, I could imagine having gone pixel-by-pixel to digitally-recreate the dulcimer … and perhaps even too the background. Yet that would’ve just been the most tedious thing of all–assuming even that I could’ve gotten it to looking at all right.

Microphone, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Microphone”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

Computer, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Computer”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

As I think I’d been resigned to all along, at last, I decided I’d simply accept the dulcimer as it was. (And, after all, I’d taken liberties with color on a couple of the other drawings. I guess I’d still just been holding on to the original vision of the dulcimer being realistic–as I’d originally envisioned even for the cover.) What to do then about the background though? What else? Take as large a rectangular portion as possible from one corner … make three copies … flip each respectively vertical, horizontal, or both … and then join them into one. The resulting patterned background was, well, patterned and as such, not quite like that on the cover or what I’d envisioned. Still … it worked more than adequately well, and saved a lot of trouble and hassle given the other options I’d thought of.

Bottom Shoe, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Bottom Shoe”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

Background, colored pencil drawing by Darren Olsen at The Draw

“Background”
© 2021 Darren Olsen

(To mention one last thing, might I have done the “additional” artwork for the Wanderings cover itself? Was it a bit of a waste it use it exclusively on the branded merchandise? Well, as I wasn’t doing a physical CD or vinyl release and, digitally, there was strictly the cover … I only could’ve used it on the cover itself. It might very well have been fine; yet, maybe … cluttered? At any rate, I figured on the off-chance I’d ever release a special or deluxe version or whatnot of the album–or would do a physical release–well, then, I’d already have some additional artwork to use. Why not–right?)

"Wanderings" Branded Journal, product at The Draw on Zazzle

“Wanderings” Branded Journal
© 2021 Darren Olsen

"Wanderings" Branded Sketchbook, product at The Draw on Zazzle

“Wanderings” Branded Sketchbook
© 2021 Darren Olsen

"Wanderings" Branded Hat, product at The Draw on Zazzle

“Wanderings” Branded Hat
© 2021 Darren Olsen

"Wanderings" Branded Shirt, product at The Draw on Zazzle

“Wanderings” Branded Shirt
© 2021 Darren Olsen

"Wanderings" Branded Poster, product at The Draw on Zazzle

“Wanderings” Branded Poster
© 2021 Darren Olsen

"Wanderings" Branded Mug, product at The Draw on Zazzle

“Wanderings” Branded Mug
© 2021 Darren Olsen

"Wanderings" Branded Keychain, product at The Draw on Zazzle

“Wanderings” Branded Keychain
© 2021 Darren Olsen

Odds ‘n’ Ending

Well … all that, taken together, comprised the bulk of the work. Yet to finish up, various other, occasionally-tricky tasks remained. Things like choosing and properly submitting everything to a distributor; choosing and signing up with a PRO; settling on a “base” for Wanderings / deciding on whether it would technically be part of The Draw or not; and, of course, doing the branded merchandise.

While I’ve touched upon much of this already, there was, of course, much nuance. Places like CD Baby and TuneCore make it easy to publish and distribute music; while PROs like ASCAP and BMI ensure performance royalties are earned. Here though, things get technical in another way: simply the debates over which organization or whatnot is “better” than the others. There really isn’t a strong, clear answer to that. I’ve been away from it too long by now to remember in detail why I settled on CD Baby and ASCAP–but I do recall that it was a hard decision only because all options seemed reasonable. If anything, I think I’d long been familiar with CD Baby, and … I’d never heard of music PROs like ASCAP and BMI. Many famous artists are of course affiliated with either group. Was there any particular reason I went with ASCAP over BMI? (A third one–SESAC–in by invitation only.) Perhaps not really. Was joining a PRO even necessary? No. (I seem to recall reading arguments against any need to join one at all.) Yet on the off-chance I ever publicly perform any of my songs, I’ll get paid, for instance, by ASCAP. And ASCAP does offer benefits that, granted, I’ve yet to take up on, but still. It seemed a good idea overall.

Releasing through CD Baby wasn’t hard … and automatically meant distribution to dozens of platforms all around the world. (Since Wanderings is purely instrumental, in theory, it might appeal to a worldwide audience.) Many of the bigger platforms like Apple Music and Spotify even offer free, dedicated artist pages … of which, as of this writing, I’ve yet to fully take advantage of. As for the CD Baby release … it’s what you’d expect. My masters had to be in a specific, standard audio format. (Fortunately, the settings I’d used in the original recordings were conducive to the required format.) Of course, I had to specify the titles and everything; the artist information; who owned everything; which songs were originals versus covers or traditionals; and all that. Including the cover art, naturally, and the release date. That was all very standard, really. Just what you’d expect.

Now, whether Wanderings was truly part of The Draw or not and where to “base” it was a separate matter. Perhaps ideally, I would’ve set up an altogether different website for it. (Either totally independent … or else, via yet another site that lets artists set up their own pages.) Yet, this would’ve added to the final hassles, and, as a one-off thing … did it matter? After all, The Draw has seen things beyond artwork before (poems and stories, for instance). So, I just figured that indeed, I could set up a page on The Draw for Wanderings, and although I did make it a bit more apart … still, that seemed to be fine.

Lastly–and this took place, I believe, after the release–it was time for the branded merchandise. Again, I did the additional artwork; figured out how to re-tool the existing artwork; settled on a handful of items; and, placed the artwork upon them in various creative ways. And at that–though not associated with Wanderings at all–I’ve also planned on putting the basic cover on various distinct items. (That is, not including the title; subtitle; or name–perhaps instead putting something generic like “Folk” or whatnot on the items.) I’ll get to it eventually, I suppose. (Though with a long-overdue changing approach to Zazzle and The Draw … who knows?)

Time Ever Flowing

Wanderings is, almost entirely, a product of the past. A retrospective of sorts. Something only brought to light many years after the existence of its parts. I’ve even said I treasured its songs, to the point that I never even knew whether I’d ever widely release them at all–whether I even wanted to. And isn’t this how we so often think of the past? Better days? Better times? Glory days we’d like to recapture? Times we try to recapture? Yet so often, we just can’t manage to conduct that magic. Time ever flows … and the past never truly comes back. The good times go; the people we care about pass–one way or another; and it just seems at times like loss and deterioration and such are all that await us.

Wanderings though, too, is a product of the future. No … really. Way back in 2003–when recording that first album–I’d planned on widely releasing it. I bought blank cassettes. I’d planned on getting mailing supplies. I put some websites together; secured a domain; took photos and such. And yet … it just wasn’t the time for it. I needed a tape duplicator … yet I’d already spent some decent money by that point. Not to mention cassettes, of course, were becoming obsolete by that time … yet I had no way of recording to CDs. And even the very reason I’d planned all that to begin with … it fell through. Became obsolete. There just remained no reason to continue … or else the way forward was simply blocked. Unattainable. And devoid of meaning and a purpose.

Who would’ve thought then that, 18 years later, Wanderings would actually bring such plans–more or less–to fruition? That songs from then and even beyond would at last see the light of day? Even better: it’d all be proper. It would be in a popular and modern format (downloads and streaming); it would be oh-so-well and mastered and everything, sounding better than ever before; and, it would–despite any lack in recognition or want–be bolstered and supported in the current framework by which music is distributed and shared.

Thought of that way–no, being that way–Wanderings is quite remarkable. It’s largely a product of the past, sure. Certainly. Yet at its deepest core, it’s of the future. Or the now. And better than any of it ever was before, or had been.

So, perhaps it may serve as a reminder to me–to all of us–that time doesn’t merely take things away from us. It also presents things to us. It brings much change, for sure. So, so much change. And it’s hard sometimes to cope with that. Yet when good times pass … other good times await. When people we will always care about have to leave us … others, we simply haven’t yet met. And sometimes … what we thought was surely at its best in the past … has simply yet to become its best.

To all of our own wanderings then. Our journeys though time. While there can never be any guarantees … what’s never entirely clear and settled, at least, is the balance of good and bad between our pasts and futures. We may yet have great times coming … and sometimes … even the very best yet to come.

I hope you might enjoy Wanderings … and with that, I’ll just leave you with it:
(Thanks for listening … if you do!)

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